Wednesday, 8 August 2018
Boris and the Burqa
I'm currently, as you may have noticed, on my annual summer holiday from this blog, taking a break and using the time to do some other writing. This includes my series The Bible: A Very Grim Fairytale. It's a long term project in which I essentially take the piss out of and otherwise expose the Bible and its idiocies, inconsistencies and blatant racism, misogyny and advocacy for murder and eye for an eye justice that most of us think is beyond the pale. This is allowed. We are allowed to write and say these things. Nobody cares. People have been doing this for decades. Indeed this is the major reason why religion no longer has the same hold over us as once it did. Exposure of its crass stupidity has diluted it and forced it to pretend to be something different, something liberal and loving, rather than nasty, brutalist and judgemental as used to be the case not so very long ago. Indeed in some parts of the world and even some 'communities' here in the UK it remains that way.
Which brings me on to the whole fabricated furore over what Boris Johnson said about burqas this week. It wasn't burqas he was talking about by the way. They are almost unknown in Britain. He was talking about the nibab, the bizarre form of dress worn by a tiny minority of women even here in this country and which we are all apparently supposed to tolerate. More than that we are not even allowed to criticise them.
Because that is what the critics of Boris are effectively implying with their asinine but very predictable cries of racism and islamophobia after his Telegraph column on Monday. Presumably they have done so without actually reading said article, which you can read here. Because in that article, written with his usual panache and style for which he is paid a six figure salary, Boris wrote in defence of women being allowed to wear whatever they wish. He laid out a classic liberal case for freedom in this country. He was contrasting our attitude in the UK to minority rights to that being increasingly asserted around Europe, the latest being Denmark.
He then said that, though he defended their right to wear such garments, he nevertheless abhorred them. He used colourful language in doing so, comparing them to letter boxes or to the outfits worn by bank robbers. But so what? In so doing he was only echoing what most people think if they are being honest. These are inherently bizarre and ridiculous costumes, that have no basis in Islam, are misogynistic, anti-social, rude and oppressive. We may defend to the death women's rights to wear whatever they like, but we should also be similarly robust in our defence of the right of the rest of us to take a dim view and to say so. Many would go further and follow Denmark, France et al and ban the damned things. There are perfectly good, perfectly liberal and sensible arguments for such a ban. Even in Saudi Arabia very few women wear the full niqab or burqa. They have only become more prevalent in the last 40 years as Islamic fundamentalism has become more prevalent. They are a symbol of zealotry and isolationism. Wearing them here is a patent nonsense and indeed is injurious to health, with full time niqab wearers suffering vitamin D deprivation under our usually leaden skies.
My attitude to this subject has always been very much in sympathy with what Boris set out this week. It should be no business of the state to tell people what they can and cannot wear. Proscribing things is never a good idea. But this does not mean that I do not have sympathy with those who would ban these absurd garments. There is a very good case for a ban because it is likely that women and comparatively young girls who are wearing them are either being pressured, coerced or actively forced into doing so. I remember being on a bus in Birmingham once and watching as a Muslim girl got on in full Muslim garb, including the niqab, took it off and donned the traditional dress of the British schoolgirl. It was like going from the middle ages to St Trinians in one fell swoop. I wanted to shout hurrah and hug her.
There are many good reasons to ban these obnoxious outfits and protection of girls like her is the most important. These are the same sort of girls who disappear from our schools to be forced into marriage with foreign husbands they have never met before, who are abusive and in possession of medieval ideas about women's rights - which is to say that women don't have any rights and should walk a few paces behind their husband who effectively owns them. Yet here we are, 100 years since women got the vote in this country, and people who imagine themselves to be liberal are attempting to shout down and silence an elected MP who is criticising, in the mildest of terms, a clothing choice that offends against all that women have achieved in the last century.
A ban would of course offend against our liberal values. But those liberal values are being offended against by the presence of this kind of coercion in the first place. The burqa or niqab is a very visible symbol of 'communities' in the UK who separate themselves from us and seek to live by different rules and even laws to the rest of us. A ban would therefore be an assertion of our laws, rules and yes our values. They are the same laws, rules and values that make Britain such an attractive country for people to come and live in. So why are we so afraid to defend them?
This is not an argument for a ban. But it is a contribution to the debate about it, a debate we are not having because whenever someone bravely raises their head above the parapet, so called liberals shout them down as they have tried to do with Boris. Members of his own party have criticised him and even called on him to apologise. Others are calling for him to be disciplined. The Prime Minister, once again showing all of the spinelessness for which she is justly famed, has bowed to the Twitter mob and called on him to apologise because of the 'offence' he has caused. But as Guido points out, the woman who gave us go home vans, Windrush and the hostile environment for illegal immigrants trying to take the moral high ground on this takes the biscuit. Others condemning Boris, people like Anna Soubry, the Labour front bench and Ken Clarke have said similar things about the burqa with no outrage. That's because the burqa is an outrage to liberal values as ought to be a statement of the obvious.
To his great credit Boris has refused to apologise. Those who are calling on him to do so should be the ones to apologise. Our freedom of speech is every bit as precious as our right to wear whatever we damn well like. Religion held sway over us for centuries because that freedom to criticise, debate and ridicule was constrained by force of the law. A majority of people in this country would actually support a ban of the burqa - that is more than voted for Brexit. But the establishment won't allow us to even talk about it. Nobody has the right to not be offended. How many more times do we need to say that? The right to be bold and assertive in our freedom of speech is the most precious aspect of the society we have created. We must not allow the reassertion of blasphemy laws by the underhand method of asserting offence or hate crimes.
Criticising a religion is the right of us all. Islamophobia is a nonsense word. As the great Christopher Hitchens once said, and as I have repeated in the top line of this blog for years, islamophobia is a word created by fascists and used by cowards to manipulate morons. I am proudly phobic of Islam as I am of all of the major religions. That does not make me phobic of Muslims any more than I am of Christians, Jews, Hindus and the various subsets of them all. Muslims are a religious grouping, not an ethnic group. It cannot be racist to criticise aspects of Muslim belief any more than it is racist to criticise some of the more intolerant attitudes and beliefs of Catholicism. And it is incumbent on us all to stand up for our right to say what we like, to criticise and to ridicule.
What Boris wrote this week will have resonated with a large majority of the country, many of whom will have wished that he had gone further. There is politics in all of this of course. Boris is clearly on manoeuvres for the leadership. Others are on manoeuvres to stop him. This episode will have done him no harm whatsoever in his revivified bid to replace our hopeless embarrassment of a Prime Minister, a bid that started the moment he finally resigned from the Cabinet after the Chequers debacle.
But, in addition to restarting his leadership bid, it has restarted a debate we sorely need to have in this country and which has been silenced. Maybe this new boldness from Boris should continue. There are many subjects that have become verboten, at the behest of the bien pensants, that the country wishes to talk about. May I suggest to Boris that a future column might wish to discuss the idiocy that is telling men they can become women whilst still being in possession of a penis. That they can do so at the stroke of a pen rather than the stroke of the surgeon's knife ought to be a Monty Python joke. Indeed it used to be one. There's a subject for a column for you Boris. There are some great jokes to be had and endless opportunities for further outrage. You'll be PM by Christmas.